Kansas Republican Pat Roberts announces retirement, sets up open seat race for Senate

Sen. Pat Roberts won’t pursue another run for U.S. Senate, a decision that’s likely to trigger a bitter primary showdown between some of Kansas’ most prominent Republicans.

Roberts, R-Kansas, held hands with his wife, Franki Roberts, as he approached a podium to announce that he would retire from public service at the end of his current term.

He made his announcement in Manhattan, Kansas, the home of his alma mater Kansas State University. He spoke at the headquarters of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, a symbolic location after the 82-year-old Republican shepherded the farm bill to congressional passage with historic majorities last month.

The decision is the beginning of the end for Roberts’ half century-long congressional career, including 12 years a Capitol Hill aide to Kansas lawmakers before he became a congressman in 1981.

He was Kansas’ longest-serving member of Congress — which ensured he gained clout and plum leadership roles on Capitol Hill, but also made him vulnerable to attack for being out of touch with Kansans.

Now his 24-0 election record will remain unblemished.

“I’m damned proud of that undefeated record,” Roberts said to applause Friday.

Republicans in the state, including outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer, have already begun lining up to launch campaigns in anticipation that Roberts would step aside.

A GOP showdown for an open seat could also include Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, former Rep. Kevin Yoder, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who defeated Colyer by 345 votes in the 2018 primary for governor before losing the general election.

Two years from now, at age 84, Roberts will exit Capitol Hill on his own terms, after playing a major part in the development of federal agriculture policy over the past four decades.

He used his experience, connections and clout to bring military missions, disaster aid and a state-of-the-art federal research facility to Kansas, among other federally funded projects.

“Pat’s leadership, wit and ability to bring individuals on both sides of the aisle together, skills he honed in service to our nation as a U.S. Marine, will be missed in Congress,” said fellow Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran.

Roberts spent much of his career with a clear focus on agriculture policy and is the only lawmaker to have chaired both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.

“It’s not just having the gavel, it’s what’s you do with the gavel,” Roberts said.

“Many who do not live in farm country just don’t understand the role we Kansans play to feed a troubled and hungry world,” Roberts said.

In all, the Kansas Republican helped craft eight farm bills during his tenure.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, who partnered with Roberts on the most recent farm bill, praised Roberts for his willingness to work across the aisle on agriculture issues.

“Day in and day out, he defines what it means to be a consensus builder. As my true friend and partner on the Senate Agriculture Committee, he always puts the needs of our farmers and ranchers first and never wavers in his commitment to getting things done,” Stabenow said in a statement.

Roberts’ partnership with Stabenow caused backlash from conservative groups, who blamed the Kansan for blocking more aggressive reforms to the food stamps program in order to keep Democrats on board with the bill.

In recent years, the senator fought the Trump administration’s proposal to cut crop insurance and argued against the president’s tariff strategy as harmful to farmers, earning him the nickname “Farm Guy” from Trump.

“He’s the slow and steady hand when it comes to farm policy,” said Ryan Flickner, the senior director of the Kansas Farm Bureau. “He does obviously go into attack mode… If somebody’s going to attack crop insurance, he’ll be the pit bull.”

When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, Roberts rose to chairman of the Agriculture Committee, a prized post for a Kansas lawmaker. From that perch, he championed the “Freedom to Farm Act,” historic, if flawed, legislation that lifted government controls on crop production and sought to phase out direct subsidies to farmers.

Roberts later admitted that the law wasn’t quite the success he had hoped it would be. When prices dropped a few years later, Congress jumped in and ponied up billions worth of emergency payments to bail farmers out. Within a few years, farmers were receiving much more of their net income from subsidies than they had before-- from 13 percent in 1996 to nearly half in 2000.

Beyond agriculture policy, one of his most prominent leadership roles, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the early days of the Iraq War, made him a target of partisan rancor.

Without naming him, Roberts criticized Trump’s approach to foreign policy during his Friday announcement. Trump recently ordered American troops to leave Syria, and appears to be considering a significant reduction of forces in Afghanistan.

“I worry about our national security,” Roberts said. “I’m concerned that we need a consistent and predictable national security policy that’s in step with our allies and that when we make decisions it should be a step by step process where everybody’s informed using the great, best intelligence that we have.”

Roberts was first elected to the U.S. House in 1980 and elevated to the U.S. Senate in 1996. His congressional career spanned six presidencies, but Roberts’ ties to Republican politics go back even farther.

His father, Charles Wesley Roberts, briefly chaired the Republican National Committee in 1953 after fellow Kansan Dwight Eisenhower’s election as president.

Pat Roberts has championed the construction of an Eisenhower Memorial, which is tentatively set to open in 2020, set to be his final full year in office.

Marshall, who represents Roberts’ old U.S. House seat, sported a Kansas State tie on Capitol Hill Friday as a tribute to Roberts.

He said Roberts belongs on the “Mount Rushmore of Kansas leaders” along with Eisenhower and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Born in Topeka in 1936, Roberts served in the Marine Corps as a captain and worked for newspapers in Arizona before joining the congressional staff of then-Sen. Frank Carlson, a Kansas Republican, in 1967. Two years later, Roberts became administrative assistant to Rep. Keith Sebelius, who represented Kansas’ sprawling “Big First” district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

When Sebelius resigned in 1980, Roberts ran to replace his boss and won.

Dole, one of Roberts’ mentors, said in a statement that if he needed help on an issue he “could always go to then-Congressman Pat Roberts to get it done.”

Roberts developed a pragmatic conservative record and earned a reputation as the Senate’s resident comedian thanks to his acerbic sense of humor. It’s a trait that endeared him to Capitol Hill insiders, but occasionally caused him trouble with constituents.

A quip to The New York Times that he had “full access to the recliner” at a friend’s house in Dodge City after Roberts had rented out his Kansas home plagued him throughout his 2014 re-election campaign.

Roberts purchased a new home in Topeka in 2016, but the questions about his residency were likely to be an issue on the campaign trail again in 2020.

Roberts was the only senator to show up for work during the week of Christmas when the government was in shutdown. It highlighted both his commitment to the chamber and his disconnection from his home state after he chose to spend the holiday in Northern Virginia rather than Kansas.

“When a lot of people talk about what they want in a public servant – whether they realize it or not – they’re describing Pat Roberts,” said David Kensinger, who managed Roberts’ 2008 campaign. “Someone who is interested in accomplishment over posturing. He was willing to let other people take credit.”

Roberts first won his Senate seat in 1996, afterthe retirement of moderate Republican Nancy Kassebaum. He easily beat his Democratic opponent, Kansas state Treasurer Sally Thompson, with 62 percent of the vote.

“I promised that when I was in the Senate, when Kansas spoke Washington would listen,” Roberts said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Roberts turned his focus to national security. Shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Roberts became chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. His tenure on that panel made him a target of criticism from Democrats, who accused him of protecting the Bush administration by stonewalling investigations of pre-war intelligence failures.

Democratic leader Harry Reid forced a rare closed session of the Senate to protest Roberts’ handling of the probes in 2005, a maneuver Republicans dismissed as a stunt.

Despite the drama, Roberts gave up the chance to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, resolving instead to stay on as head of the Intelligence Committee. That decision might have cost him at home, where national security issues took a back seat to farming and rural concerns.

As Roberts prepared to run for his fourth Senate term in 2014, his voting record swerved to the right. He opposed that year’s farm bill, raising the debt ceiling and ending 2013’s federal government shutdown. He also nixed a U.N. treaty for disabled rights championed by Dole.

The rightward shift in his votes and public statements helped him fend off a primary challenge from Tea Party candidate Milton Wolf in 2014.

He went onto win the general election against wealthy independent businessman Greg Orman by double digits — but not before national Republican money flooded the state to help him defend his seat.

Roberts said in a December interview that he always knew he was going to win in 2014, but that at a celebratory dinner after the election he found out many of the people who worked on his campaign did not share his faith.

“I went around and asked every one of them, I said, ‘On the day of the election, did you think I was going to win?’ With the exception of two people, everybody said no,” Roberts said.

“I take 102 of 105 counties,” Roberts said. “Normally, that would be considered a landslide back in the day. Instead, it’s that I scraped by.”

Lesley Clark of The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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